OPERA / In search of new words: How do you put a libretto into English, and not sound absurd? Jenny Gilbert asks the experts

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THE SCENE is a dingy box-room squeezed behind London's Albery Theatre. The props: a vocal score of La Traviata and a bottle of Tippex. The central character: Tony Britten, maverick arranger and librettist, who is in the throes of creating a new version of Puccini's great weepie, a standard of grand opera and hence almost always sung in Italian. Britten has no truck with the prevailing notion that singing in the original language is the only way to do justice to the composer's intentions. 'Nineteenth-century opera demands to be more than spectacle submerged in a welter of music,' he says. 'People normally do Traviata in a sort of generalised gothic-tragic way, but today's audiences deserve better.' With evident satisfaction he takes a dab of Tippex and whites out another few lines of printed text. He will pencil new lyrics on top.

The results of Britten's labours, which to date include the three Mozart / Da Ponte operas and Rossini's Cinderella, all for the company Music Theatre London, have at worst provoked accusations of vulgarity, but also the comment that they are provocative in the best sense, bringing to opera the kind of dramatic truth usually achieved only in straight theatre.

On occasion, Britten's new versions have even bested the great Da Ponte, as in MTL's Cos fan tutte, where the final quintet, instead of offering a precis of what we already know, gives a bitter comment on the entire plot, with the resounding reprise: 'Life's a bitch and then you die]' In the context of an exquisite coloratura top line and fulsome harmony, Britten's new lyrics lend humour and biting resonance to what is a famously tricky denouement.

Similarly in Don Giovanni, audiences are unlikely to forget the cast-off lady who vents her spleen at the Don's behaviour by singing 'I'll have his balls on toast' at every opportunity.

But if Britten is happy to deviate wildly from the original to make a point, he is a stickler for adhering to existing rhyme schemes, arguably the translator's hardest task. 'In Mozart, particularly, the music and rhymes are inseparable,' he claims. 'I can't abide hearing translations that don't match - it's lazy.'

Almost everything rhymes in Italian: the stresses of words fall on more or less the same syllable each time and all end in an accommodating open vowel-sound. Not so in English. Britten gives an example from a passage he's struggling with in Traviata: 'If you should ever fall in love with the young girl you left for me . . .' He has marked in the score where the 'me' rhyme should occur - in four places. He flicks through the rhyming dictionary: 'There are pages of words ending in 'ee' sound, hundreds of words. But because in English the stress mostly falls at the beginning - tiffany, liberty, injury, slippery (you can't sing injuree, slipperee) - the list is drastically reduced. In fact it's down to we, be and see. So although English is a rich and complex language, you end up using a very small number of words.'

Such technical problems are hardly new. Operas have been translated into English since the end of the last century and on the Continent, where opera was better established, it would then have been considered an insult to perform in anything other than the language of the audience (Wagner and Verdi were automatically translated into French). England was slower off the mark and it was the work of the Edwardian scholar Edward Dent that re-established Mozart's operas in the repertoire.

Dent's translations are the Hymns Ancient and Modern of opera - bland, convoluted, full of linguistic inversions, yet still standard for small opera companies, and even, until recently, English National Opera. In the past decade or so, particularly under David Pountney's regime, ENO has given a great boost to the art of re-translation, nurturing talents such as Amanda Holden, Anne Ridler, Pountney himself and Jeremy Sams. Sams's witty Figaro's Wedding, though mainstream compared with Tony Britten's offerings, put the cat among the pigeons simply by re-translating the title - a thoroughly sensible rendering of Le Nozze di Figaro, but contentious in opera circles none the less. Scottish Opera, which is using Sams's version later this season, has insisted on changing it back to The Marriage of . . .

Jennifer Barnes, a young American academic and former singer, has just completed her first commission for ENO, re-translating Janacek's Jenufa. Crossing to the other camp has been a baptism of fire. The first shock was to discover how other translators worked: 'Most of them start from a word-for-word translation pinched from record sleeves.'

Barnes insisted that ENO pay a native Czech speaker to do a transliteration for her, and get a credit for it. Her brief, as she saw it, was out of the normal run: Janacek took for his libretto two large chunks of a controversial play by a contemporary Czech playwright, Gabriela Preissova, 'so what I'm left with is an extremely conversational piece of idiomatic, sparse, taut language, and music whose entire raison d'etre was to set a drama in its native tongue.

'My job is not to say 'How can I make this relevant to my English audience', it's 'How can I use English to convey the power of this Czech piece?'. What's paramount is that I bring out every nuance of the Czech, no matter how complex and nasty the story is. And resist the temptation to give it an authorial tilt.'

Barnes's second shock came when she presented her work to the singers. Some of them, not to put too fine a point on it, wouldn't sing her words. She had been warned by a fellow librettist that this might happen, but was almost thrown - she was, after all, a singer herself, familiar with what sat well under the voice and what didn't.

'To my mind,' she says, 'translation is a severely structured craft. It's not just a question of meaning: you reinforce characterisation with the precise words you choose. You of course make alterations if there's a real musical reason, but ideological changes are tough.'

Sams himself, having strongly resisted many such challenges to his work (at least once threatening to withdraw it completely), has mellowed to the extent that he can see all sides of the problem.

'The translator and the director are there to tell the story as clearly as possible,' he says. 'The singers' remit is to make a beautiful noise. We all claim to be fighting the same corner, but in fact we have different imperatives. If I have a rhyme that works beautifully and they say, 'I just can't sing top A on that sound . . .', we're at loggerheads.'

Sams remembers ruefully a time when he had argued a point fiercely with a certain tenor. The tenor appeared to relent, and throughout rehearsals sang what was written. Then on the night he went out and sang gibberish.

So, if singers think in terms of vowels while librettists think in terms of words, drama and predicaments, what's on the audience's agenda?

Sams believes that for a good many of them it's something else again: 'Conspicuous consumption, all-purpose emotion, beautiful noise . . . That's why the English like their opera in a foreign language: statements of raw emotion are uncomfortable. And in a way they've a point. Italian and French are the languages of sex and food. English is the language of irony, understatement, duplicity, diplomacy . . .' But perhaps that's enough to be going on with.

'Traviata': Donmar Warehouse, WC2, 071-867 1150, from Mon. 'Jenufa': Coliseum, WC2, 071- 836 3161, from 8 June. Jeremy Sams's 'Boheme': Coliseum, from 18 June.

'THE CATALOGUE ARIA' FROM DON GIOVANNI

EDWARD DENT'S TRANSLATION (1946)

Leporello produces a list.

Pray allow me] Let me draw your attention

To this long list of names and addresses -

A complete list of all his adventures.

Take a seat, ma'am, and read it with me,

Here you are ma'am come read it with me . . .

. . . Here are country girls in plenty,

Ladies' maids and would-be ladies,

The nobility and gentry,

This for royalty the page is.

Handsome, ugly, high or humble,

All are women, all for him,

All are women, all for him.

TONY BRITTEN'S TRANSLATION (1992)

Leporello takes out a Psion Organiser.

Listen closely, and I'll try to explain it.

With a system like this it's so easy

To recall all the names and addresses

Of the women my guv'nor has had;

I'm afraid that's he's no Galahad . . .

. . . He's had lecturers and teachers,

Even several female preachers.

There've been actresses and artists

And a dozen lady harpists

And a tuba-playing footballer

Who liked it in the snow.

How he does it, I'll never know.

(Photograph omitted)

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